I learned, earlier than most in this country, of the dominant skills of black athletes.
I did because of the five years I spent on the road with the Harlem Globetrotters, in their spectacular seasons in the late 1940s and early 1950s when they were the hottest ticket in American sports, and watching early NFL stars like Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns demolish non-black defenders. Then I saw Satchel Paige in the twilight years of his career, and realized my father had been right when he told me Paige, would have been one of major league baseball’s all-time greatest pitchers if he had been allowed to play in the then completely segregated majors.
To put those late 1940s in perspective, it was before there were any black ballplayers in the National Basketball Association, and only shortly after Jackie Robinson had broken the ban in major league baseball.
I also happened to have known Jesse Owens personally, and as a youngster I had my first great sports thrill when he personally humiliated Adolf Hitler in Berlin by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games.
So the subsequent rise of stars like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe in tennis, and later the total domination of the Williams sisters, and the incredible feats of Tiger Woods in golf, came as no surprise to me.
Nor did last Saturday’s pro football draft, where nine of the first 10 players drafted, and 18 of the first 20 were black.
This is not chance or happenstance. Nor are the lineups of the NBA today, where white faces now appear as infrequently as black ones did in the 1950s, when they first were given the chance to compete.
The fact that the first player selected in this year’s NFL draft was white is a tribute both to his physical skills and his intelligence. When a 20-year-old, 6-4, 212-pound quarterback comes along who compiled a 21-2 college record and graduated in two years with a 3.74 grade average majoring in economics, only a dullard would not grab him given first shot, as the San Francisco 49ers did.
Alex Smith will be playing for a club with a dismal record, which is how they got him, and the NFL is not the University of Utah. However, I predict great things for Smith and the 49ers. He will be playing for a team and an audience that became accustomed to the greatness of Joe Montana and Steve Young. That realization is likely to spur Smith to even greater effort. The guess here is that he will rejuvenate that great quarterback tradition, if not in his rookie season then soon after.
The only other white player drafted in the first 20 was David Pollack, a 6-2, 260-pound defensive end from Georgia, drafted 17th by the Cincinnati Bengals.
As for the second thru 10th draft selections, each young African Americans, all but three played college ball in the South. Three of them — running backs Ronnie Brown (second), Carnell Williams (fifth) and cornerback Carlos Rogers (ninth) — played for Auburn. Only brilliant wide receivers Braylon Edwards of Michigan and Mike Williams of Southern Cal, along with cornerback Adam Jones of West Virginia, played in northern and western locations. Williams, while starring on the West Coast, played his high school ball in his native Tampa, Florida.
He set records with 1,314 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in his junior year with Southern Cal’s 2003 national champions, but made the costly mistake of dropping out of school and signing with an agent, relying on a U.S. District Court decision in the Maurice Clarett case at Ohio State that said any college underclassman could turn professional, regardless of age.
That decision was overturned, and the NCAA, in all of its piety, ruled against USC reinstating Williams’ eligibility. So the best wide receiver in college football — all 6-feet-5 and 229 pounds of him — sat out the entire 2004 season.
He will back this fall, with the Detroit Lions, another in the roster of superb black athletes who have asserted their skills and athletic prowess at the highest level of American sports.